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Rock of Ages: Petra, Jordan’s Ancient City of Temples and Tombs

The Washington Post, December 3, 1995
By Michele Kayal

Michelangelo said that when he looked at a block of marble, he saw a figure trapped within it. The Nabataeans of southern Jordan were a bit more ambitious. Two thousand years before Michelangelo ever picked up a chisel, the nomadic Arab tribe looked at cliffs of stone and saw an entire city.

Without drills, tractors, jackhammers or even picks as fine as the Italian's, they set upon the hillsides and began carving deep into them, hollowing out two-story temples propped on Corinthian columns, tombs bedecked with obelisks and statues of gods, courts, reservoirs, staircases, aqueducts and homes of stony grandeur. More than 800 examples of their towering handiwork sprawl across 36 square miles of a hidden valley in Jordan's desert that attracts thousands of tourists every year.

My uncle and I had just spent two weeks climbing around the ruins of Syria--all the ruins of Syria, it seemed!--but none of it had prepared us for Petra, the city whose name means "Rock." We boarded a rickety mini-bus just after sunrise, and to the thumping quarter-tones of Arabic dance music, made our way south from Amman through 155 miles of dismal countryside, scrubby and pock-marked by electrical towers and phosphate mines. Just past the sign for the nearby Saudi Arabian border, our cheery Palestinian driver pulled off at an overlook and shooed us out of van.

There, cutting the horizon, jagged, jutting swells of stone pushed their way up like the angry children of some prehistoric geophysical calamity. Back there, the driver told us, behind that, is Petra.

Our ears popped as we descended a corkscrew pass, and we giggled at the shabby wooden signs for hotels (and a dry cleaner!) that heralded the approach to the site. As we pulled up in front of the visitor center, the door of the van swung open and a birdlike head poked its way in. "Awright, hey, who wants to see Petra? Come with me!" squawked Hanny, our anemic guide, who learned his news-bulletin English in Mountain View, Calif., and never smoked the pipe he carried.

We followed Hanny toward the dull thud of hooves and within minutes were calling "Yullah!" ("Let's go!") as we mounted horses and spurred them down the needle-width, rocky gorge that is Petra's only entrance. The Siq, as it is known in Arabic, was carved over millions of years by rivers and, Hanny said, earthquakes.

I clomped languidly behind on my scruffy, spotted mare named Suzanne, craning my neck as we twisted our way through a world made for giants. Several stories overhead, burnt-orange cliffs curled like waves, and when the sky broke through the snaking half-mile gorge, it was like being on the floor of the ocean looking up to the surface.

Once upon a time it was the floor of the ocean. Millions of years ago, water covered the area, and when it receded, it left behind Petra's rough red sandstone seascape, swirled and veined with copper, magnesium and iron that turn it all the colors of the sunset when dusk comes to the desert.

I was still looking up when the gorge suddenly cracked open and flooded my eyes with pinkish light. In the break of the craggy pass, El-Khazneh, or the Pharoah's Treasury, rose like Atlantis uncovered, towering ahead and giving off a downy, otherworldly glow in the pre-midday sun.

The signature monument of the Rose Red City looms 130 feet high, with six Corinthian columns in its portico and a giant urn adorning its second story. The sandy red walls of its single interior chamber are worn smooth as Michelangelo's marble. As we stood in the shade of the soaring pediments, Hanny told us that the second-century structure took more than 100 years to finish. It was christened "The Treasury" by Petra's l9th-century inhabitants (who mistakenly believed that the stone urn contained the Pharoah's fortune and therefore tried to break it open with gunfire), but the building's actual function is an archaeological brain teaser.

Scholars argue about whether the building was a temple or a tomb, but our slack-jawed questioning was more to the point: How did they do this?

Hanny had no answer to that one. The Nabataeans, who wandered the desert until they put down at Petra in the 6th century B.C., were expert architects and engineers and probably had iron tools. Yet archaeologists have found no record or telltale marks of the construction techniques employed. As with the pyramids of Egypt, the engineering secrets of Petra remain a mystery.

That unsolved, we asked Hanny our second question: Why did they do this? Why dig buildings out of a stone mountainside? Answer: because it's there. The sandstone was far more plentiful than wood, nearly indestructible, and soft enough to sculpt with relative ease. The single entrance to the site made the city easily defensible and the homes themselves, with their solid infrastructure, offered the best protection against all torments human and divine--wars, storms, floods "and, of course," Hanny said, "earthquakes."

A particularly safe neighborhood lies around the corner from the Treasury at the Street of Facades. The street contains a row of ancient high-rises whose entrances stand a full story above ground--protection against thieves in the days before locks. The homes are thought to have belonged to Petra's wealthy set, who used retractable ladders to get inside and installed elevated sidewalks to connect them with their neighbors.

We didn't make the climb to the elevated homes, but the ones we entered at ground level most often showed a single large chamber with small rooms off to the side. The ceilings are low, and the mineral colors swirl blue, black, cream and rose, creating a kind of natural wallpaper.

In its day, which spanned the 300 years between the 2nd century B.C. and the lst century A.D., Petra supported more than a half-million residents. Most of them had indoor plumbing. A reservoir built at the entrance to the gorge supplied water through an advanced system of aqueducts, the remnants of which we saw all through the city. An elaborate irrigation system maintained farms and gardens, which made the Nabataeans largely self-sufficient. Parts of Petra were inhabited by wanderers until eight years ago, when the city underwent its first "urban renewal" program and the Jordanian government moved the wayward residents elsewhere so it could restore the site.

From the Street of Facades, we continued on foot along the gorge, which gets progressively wider until it opens into a Badlands-style valley. Icicles of rough rock look as though they dropped from the sky, pierced the ground and just stayed there. Monuments decorate most of these mountains of rock.

As we rounded a bend, Hanny stopped long enough to motion toward the amphitheater. He told us that its now-decrepit, rock-carved rows once held 3,000 people, but that it was destroyed in A.D. 363. "The earthquake," he said, scurrying toward the next site.

By this time, we'd gotten the picture that the Middle East was the California of ancient times. No matter where we went in Jordan or Syria, the answer to "How did this become a ruin?" always came back the same: "The earthquake." It must have been a doozy. Unfortunately, no one agrees on the exact date of "the earthquake," but one guide told is that "there were many."

With our socks full of rose-colored sand, we chased Hanny up a hill toward the Urn Tomb, so named for the funereal object that decorates its roof. The tomb's distinctive pilasters are taller than the building is wide, and it is unadorned except for the sharp 45-degree angles on the roof and walls that are the mark of the Nabataean stone dresser. Sunlight pierces the single immense chamber (65 by 59 feet) in a long, narrow beam from a window over the door. It hits the center of the room and makes a hitch on the floor like an interrogation lamp.

From the Urn Tomb's elevated plaza, we surveyed the hills of the Wadi Musa, the Valley of Moses, where the prophet struck the rock and drew water. The craggy peaks spoke also of battles, real and imagined: Lawrence of Arabia fought the Turks from the city's pediments in World War I, and Indiana Jones used Petra's stony walls to give modern marauders what-for in the 1989 film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

We scampered down from the tomb to the center of ancient Petra, now identifiable as a center only by the battered remains of the grand avenue that led into it. Two thousand years ago, the King's Highway was paved with blocks of stone and lined by columns, and stretched more than 265 miles north to Damascus and points beyond.

The highway was constructed by the Romans, who spent much of the first century trying to figure out how to get down the Siq and into Petra, which was making a fortune as the hub of the trade routes from India, southern Arabia and even China. In A.D. 106, they finally succeeded with the aid of a Nabataean traitor.

Petra flourished for much of the Roman period, but shifting trade routes soon began to chip away at its business. As the city declined, the Romans abandoned it, "the earthquake" rattled it, the Muslims sacked it, and by the 8th century, obscurity claimed it. Petra enjoyed a brief revival under the Crusaders, who used it as a communications outpost, but after the l2th century, it once again faded from the map. It was occupied only by occasional wandering tribesmen. The city was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer, but didn't open to the public until 1952.

After a drink at the highway's garden-covered "rest stop," it was time for us to go. We felt as though we had seen hardly anything, even though Hanny had whisked us through as much as possible on our three-hour tour. The High Place of Sacrifice that overlooks the rocky valley was still miles away. The burial site of Aaron, Moses' brother, and Ed-Deir, a building similar to the Treasury but said to be even more spectacular many hours away by foot or on horseback. There would be no way to cover the miles that the settlements covered, "not even if you had a lifetime," Hanny told us.

Michele Kayal is a freelance writer based in New York.